The El Mozote Massacre : Human Rights And Global Implications 9780816532162

860 169 13MB

English Pages [400] Year 2016

Report DMCA / Copyright


Polecaj historie

The El Mozote Massacre : Human Rights And Global Implications

Citation preview


THE EL M OZOTE MASSACRE Human Rights and Global Implications REVISED AND



THE UNIVERSITY OF A r iz o n a p r e s s


FM pmY Of


The University o f Arizona Press © 2016 The Arizona Board o f Regents A ll rights reserved. Published 2016 Printed in the United States o f America 21






6 5 4 3 2 1

ISB N -13: 978-0-8165-3216-2 (paper) Cover designed by Carrie House, H O U SEdesign 11c Publication o f this book is made possible in part by the proceeds o f a permanent endowment created with the assistance o f a Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal agency. Library o f Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data are available from the Library o f Congress.

© This paper meets the requirements o f A N S I/N IS O Z39.48-1992 (Permanence o f Paper).

To D oña Lola: m idwife, coffee grower, human rights activist, and confidante o f a thousand compás


List o f Illustrations


Preface to the Revised Edition




List o f Abbreviations


Introduction: Reducing Cultural Distance in Human Rights Reporting


1 The Massacre


2 The Eye of the Oligarchy




The U.S. Cover-Up

4 The Nascent Community of El Mozote



The Politics of Repression and Survival in Northern Morazán



Investigation and Judgment



A Reformed Military?



History and Memory



Representation, Witness, and Silence




10 The Struggle for Justice


11 Nunca Más!:El Mozote, Human Rights, and Transitional Justice












El Salvador


Northern Morazán

2 19


Wooden crosses at the foot o f an eroded adobe wall


E l Mozote shortly after the massacre


8 24


E l Mozote, layout of The Plain


One o f E l Mozote’s main streets in late December several weeks after the massacre


5. 6.

Destroyed home in E l Mozote Sign left by the Adacatl on the wall o f an El Mozote house

31 32


Baptismal font



Genealogical chart of descendants o f T M and Isabel



Genealogical chart of descendants o f N M andCatalina



Sacristy excavation



Skull and the bones surrounding it



Jorge Meléndez (Comandante “Jonas”)





Museum o f the Salvadoran Revolution, Heroes and Martyrs



Samuel Vidal Guzmán



Portion o f the tail section o f the helicopter o f Lt. Col. Domingo Monterrosa



Seven closed caskets containing the remains o f at least 143 persons disinterred in the sacristy at E l Mozote

17. Primary memorial in the E l Mozote plaza 18.

209 219

Local member o f the tourist collective describing the massacre for visitors



Fidelia Amaya stands at the entrance to the Museo Rufina Amaya



Mural o f Light and Garden o f Reflection



List o f structures and inhabitants from the E l Mozote survey


Massacres in northern Morazán, 1980-1981



Riflings by military and security forces in northern Morazán



Genealogical survey o f sample o f former El Mozote residents



Percentages of 433 Mariona prisoners subjected to each o f 40 forms o f torture




Human rights violations reported to the Truth Commission by northern Morazanians, 1980-1991



Families repopulating E l Mozote as of August 1993



HE EARLIER ED IT IO N of The E l Mozote Massacre was completed in


1994, about the time I began a nine-month-long study of northern Morazán supported by a Fulbright-Hays fellowship. A few years later

I relocated to Puebla, Mexico, to take up a position at the Social Science and Humanities Research Institute of the Autonomous University of Puebla (Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla [BUAP]). For most of the next twelve years, my research focused on international migration from Mex­ ico to the United States and Canada. I thought and occasionally wrote about northern Morazán, but it was only in 2008 that I returned there for a month

with the object o f catching up on events of the last decade and obtaining the preliminary information necessary to write a research grant. That grant mate­ rialized the following year and, funded by the National Science Foundation ([NSF] grant BCS-0962643), for several months over each of the following three summers (2010-2012), I worked with a team of local and international researchers to study what I referred to as “postinsurgent individuality.” The N SF project was focused not on E l Mozote but on the costs and adjust­ ments of the postwar among the members o f three groups with some for­ mer relationship to the Frente Farabundo M ari para la Liberación Nacional (FM LN ): the Christian Base Communities o f E l Salvador (Comunidades Eclesiales de Base de E l Salvador [CEBES]), the Tourism Promotor (Promo­ tora de Turismo [PRO D ETU R ]), and an agricultural cooperative— or what



remained o f the cooperative— formed initially o f ex-rebel combatants and their families. A ll three were based in or around the former “guerrilla capital” of Perquin, although the radius o f operation o f the first two encompassed much o f northern Morazán. Also, the first two had developed substantial involvement in E l Mozote: P R O D E T U R promoted tourism in the area, and C E B E S maintained a close relationship with Tutela Legal, the institu­ tion charged with pressing the case for truth, justice, and reparations in E l Mozote and elsewhere. I visited the community on numerous occasions, often accompanied by Dr. Ellen Moodie o f the University o f Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Dr. Rafael Alarcon, then a doctoral student in sociology at BUAP. The commu­ nity had grown significantly since the early 1990s: the church had been rebuilt on its former site; a health center had been constructed; and memorials, murals, and a garden and tourist kiosk, staffed by trained guides, suggested movement on the historical memory front. Interviewing in and around E l Mozote was limited by the fact that C E B E S was coordinating with Tutela Legal to take written and videotaped testimony from dozens o f people who were breaking through a quarter century o f silence to testify about their experiences. It was suggested that I await the resolution o f the court case to contact them. None­ theless, some testimonies had been published in Tutela Legal’s 2008 book E l Mozote: Lucha por la verdad y lajusticia and summarized in court briefs available on the website o f the Inter-American Commission o f Human Rights and the Interamerican Court of Human Rights. And I did interview a small number o f formerly displaced persons. A brief summary of the main changes from the first edition follows. I have worked over all the chapters, correcting mistakes where possible and append­ ing additional supporting evidence. The significant change involves the addition o f three new chapters (9-11). Chapter 9 treats postwar resettlement, tourism, and the initial steps toward community involvement in the case. Chapter 10 focuses on the court case heard by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on 23 April 2012 in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and the succeeding sentence. The earlier chapter 10 treating “An Alternative Anthropology” is now chapter 11 and has been completely rewritten to focus on transitional justice and human rights discourse and practice. Accordingly, I have retitled that chapter “Nunca Más! E l Mozote, Human Rights, and Transitional Justice.” The concluding chapter o f the first edition o f this book took a critical and even cynical look at anthropology and its potential for furthering human rights. In the two decades



that have ensued since initial publication, anthropology has embraced human rights to a degree I failed to anticipate, and though I am no less skeptical about the potential long-term benefits o f that embrace, I believe that it is more im­ portant in the current political conjuncture to address human rights and tran­ sitional justice discourse and practice than the politics o f anthropology. I con­ tinue to think that in a truly just world— an ideal that seems even more distant than two decades ago— anthropology, at least as we know it, would cease to exist. That many activist anthropologists develop projects in conversation with subalterns and in the service o f progressive social change represents a salutary development. Still, under conditions of real equality (across the board), subalternity would cease to exist and along with it anthropology as we know it (see Kearney 1991 for a related and historically sensitive critique o f anthropology). Finally, I moved the epilogue to the first edition, titled “A Memorial” and de­ scribing the 1994 reburial o f remains recovered in 1992, to the end of chapter 8. I am extremely thankful for the assistance provided by Sister Anne Grif­ fin (Hermana Ana), Joanne Hopper, Sister Carmen Elena Hernández, Fredy Hernández, Daniel Ferguson, and Ronan Sharpley. Carlos Henriquez Consalvi, director o f the Museum of the Word and Image, provided Rafael Alarcon and me access to the museum’s important collection of documents, digitalized photographs, and videos. A small amount o f the material we gleaned from our forays there found its way into this book and has been duly accredited to the museum. Much more will be used in the two additional volumes o f the planned Morazán trilogy. Ellen Moodie, Rafael Alarcon, Jacinto Márquez, Elvia Pérez, and Yaneth Hernández worked on the N SF project; a Mexican team headed by Sofía Máximo transcribed the interviews. A ll translations from Spanish are my own. During our fieldwork in northern Morazán, we lodged at the Perkin Lenca, where Ron Brenneman and his staff always made us welcome. Sarah Maslin provided a copy of her Yale University senior history paper on “32 Years after a Massacre: Memory Politics in E l Mozote, E l Salvador,” and Vanesa Tomasino Rodriguez, whom I met during a conference at York University (On­ tario, Canada) in the spring o f 2014, discussed a new opera modeled, loosely, on the massacre, and at my request provided me with written descriptions o f the opera and high school experiences in El Salvador that found their way into the manuscript. Ralph Sprenkels kindly provided a copy of his magnifi­ cent dissertation from the University o f Utrecht (Holland); he also read earlier versions of the new chapters closely and critically, offering challenges to some formulations and saving me from several egregious errors. Ellen Moodie and



Rafael Alarcon also read early drafts of the new chapters, and Ellen in particu­ lar registered a number o f concerns that I have attempted to address. The usual disclaimer applies: none of these kind and patient readers bears responsibility for the result. Allyson Carter and Scott de Herrera of the University o f A ri­ zona Press was extremely supportive of the proposal for a second edition. Steve LaRue was an excellent copyeditor, whose efforts contributed greatly to the final result. I thank the anonymous readers of the prospectus and manuscript, which benefited greatly from their suggestions. Finally, I wish to thank the staff and faculty of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Col­ lege o f Staten Island o f the City University of New York, and particularly Jay Arena, Don Selby, and Ozlem Goner, who each in his or her own way, shared a question, criticism, idea, or just provided encouragement when I needed it most. Nancy Churchill is a constant in all that I do; her unerring sense o f social justice shines through every page.


VERY IN T E L L E C T U A L W O RK is a social product in the broadest sense,


and this one is no exception. I owe special debts to Phyllis Robinson and Shell! M cM illen, who assisted me in carrying out the primary

fieldwork on which this book is based. Phyllis conducted the initial inter­

views with former inhabitants o f E l Mozote in the fall and winter o f 1992; she also made a site survey o f E l Llano (The Plain) and gathered information on many prominent E l Mozote families. Shelli M cM illen worked intensively in E l Mozote in June and July 1993 and interviewed most o f the repopulating families. Shelli helped me enlarge the overall site map from about 25 to more than 150 structures and collected a great deal o f genealogical information. She proved an astute interviewer, very sensitive to the special circumstances and histories o f her subjects, and I like to think that she sowed considerable goodwill among those repopulating E l Mozote and other former residents (though Pm sure they would exchange our goodwill for housing and electric­ ity). I also owe a debt of appreciation to Roxanna Duntley, currently a gradu­ ate student at the University of Michigan, who worked on the larger project of which this book is one part and gathered information that contributed to my understanding of the historical context within which the E l Mozote mas­ sacre transpired. However, it would be a political and ethical mistake to overstate the contri­ butions of the foreign researchers, myself included, when the real credit should



go to the many people who shared with us their pride for the prewar accom­ plishments of their community and their tragic stories o f its wanton destruc­ tion. Men and women throughout the northern Morazán region took time out of their busy days to explain El Mozote’s founding, its growth, the religious and political dispositions o f its inhabitants, their repression, and their relations with the army and the F M L N . One campesino (peasant) who lost four children and sixteen grandchildren guided us around this very dispersed community for four days and shared his intimate knowledge o f its social geography. This book is my effort to compose a story from those told by José, Magdalena, Raquel, Carlota, Rufina, Ricardo, Ovelia, David, Florentin, Francisco, Juan Evange­ lista, Andrea, Felipe, Pedro, and many other people. Obviously, the story will be both more and less than the stories told by particular people, shaped as it is by a social scientist who came along ten years after the fact and was spared the suffering o f those about whom he is reporting. I know words cannot do justice to the experiences, not only o f those who lived in E l Mozote but of hundreds of thousands o f other Salvadorans, nor can words capture the difficulty o f reconstruction and the pain o f national reconciliation. I also want to thank “Nolvo” (d. 2015) and “Benito” (d. 2010), E R P activists who worked in La Guacamaya and E l Mozote in the late 1970s; “Felipe,” a catechist from La Guacamaya who preached in the E l Mozote chapel in the late 1970s; “Bracamonte,” who shared with me his memories of the operation; “Franco” and “Mafias,” former members of an F M L N health brigade who were sent to El Mozote soon after the massacre to bury the dead; and Jacinto Márquez, who worked as my field assistant from November 1994 to August 1995. “Clelia” and “Salvador” o f the Museo de la Revolución Salvadoreña, He­ roes y Mártires, in Perquín, as well as Oscar Chicas, executive director o f the Community Development Council of Morazán and San Miguel, allowed me to copy maps in their possession. M y thanks as well to “Chele Cesar” for his friendship and inspiration and to “Roberto,” “Licho,” and “Santiago” (as well as to many other compás and campesinos) for having taught me about the history of northern Morazán. M y understanding o f the events surrounding the investigation o f the massa­ cre was shaped by conversations with Father Esteban Velásquez and with Glo­ ria Romero and Mercedes Castro (d. 2008) o f the Human Rights Commission of Segundo Montes. Documentation o f human rights violations in northern Morazán was made available by the Human Rights Committee o f El Salvador,



Nongovernmental (Comité de Derechos Humanos de E l Salvador, No Gobernamental [CD H ES-N G ]),Tutela Legal, and the Human Rights Commission of Segundo Montes. Documentary research was also carried out in the news­ paper archives and other files available at the Documentation Center of the University o f Central America. Licensiado Franzi Miguel Hasbún, at the time director of the Office o f Project Promotion at the University of Central Amer­ ica, has been a consistent supporter of social investigation in northern Morazán and elsewhere in E l Salvador. The personnel at the National Security Archive provided an important ser­ vice by filing thousands of Freedom o f Information Act requests and making the resulting documents available to libraries in the form o f beautifully indexed microfiche files, and someone on the staff o f the library at the University of Connecticut had the foresight to purchase them. I employed materials gener­ ated by the National Security Archive extensively in chapter 3 . 1 also benefited from the editorial work of Mark Danner, who published several important documents released in November 1993 in the appendix of his 1994 book on the El Mozote massacre. Nancy Churchill, Jerry Phillips, and Mary Gallucci bore up extremely well under an incessant barrage of household commentary on E l Mozote, and they helped me work through more than a couple o f trouble spots. William Roseberry (d. 2000) and Hermann Rebel read early drafts o f the manuscript and made several critical suggestions. The manuscript also benefited from sugges­ tions made by Margaret Low, Shelli McMillen, Nancy Churchill, Jerry Phil­ lips, Edward Herman, and two anonymous reviewers. Whatever merit the photographs that accompany the text may have should be credited to my good friend Frank Noelker, who patiently answered numerous questions and pro­ vided sound laboratory advice to this novice photographer and printer. Mark Hoffman kindly contributed the photograph used in figure 16 (p. 209). I would like to thank Chris Franson for the very fine job he did on the maps and figures. Claudia Santelices and Elise Springer transcribed hundreds o f pages o f inter­ views with impressive precision; to my chagrin and embarrassment, I now have an accurate written record of my Spanish-language errors. Joanne O’Hare was a sympathetic editor at the University of Arizona Press. I owe a special debt of gratitude to Gloria Thomas Beckfield, who copyedited the manuscript o f the first edition with a discerning eye for both the misplaced comma and the con­ tradictory thought. Finally, I must thank Ben Magubane (d. 2013), Scott Cook, and James Faris (the troika) for the years o f assistance that they have rendered



me first as teachers and from 1985 to 1997 as colleagues. To various degrees this work reflects the influence o f each, although I despair o f ever being able to syn­ thesize three such disparate approaches— each meritorious in its own way— to social analysis. The University of Connecticut Research Foundation helped fund the re­ search for the first edition o f this book with three grants, for which I am most appreciative. Information obtained during a 1994-1995 Fulbright-Hays fellow­ ship contributed to the materials in “A Memorial” (pp. 208-11 o f chap. 8). I should mention that in order to protect them from potential repercussions, I changed the names o f many subjects. Because many former F M L N combat­ ants continue to be known by and feel more comfortable with their wartime pseudonyms, I have included such pseudonyms in quotation marks when refer­ ring to them. All translations from Spanish are my own.



Asociación Salvadoreña de Beneficiadores y Exportado­ res de Café (Salvadoran Association o f Coffee Processors and Exporters)


Asociación Coopertiva de Producción Agropecuaria “23 de Mayo” (Cooperative Association o f Agricultural Pro­ duction “23 M ay”)


Agencia Nacional de Servicios Especiales de E l Salvador


Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (Nationalist Republi­


Asociación Salvadoreña de Café (Salvadoran Coffee


batallón infantaría de reacción inmediata (immediate-


Cooperación Americana de Remesas del Exterior (Coop­

(Salvadoran National Security Agency) can Alliance) Association) reaction infantry battalion) eration for Assistance and Relief Everywhere [note that the acronym is employed in the United States and in El Salvador but with somewhat different meanings]) C D H E S -N G

Comité de Derechos Humanos de E l Salvador, No Gobernamental (Human Rights Committee of E l Salvador, Nongovernmental)




Comunidades Eclesiales de Base de E l Salvador (Chris­


Center for Justice and International Law


Comité de Familiares Pro-Libertad de Presos y Desa­

tian Base Communities o f E l Salvador) Committee in Solidarity with the People of E l Salvador parecidos Poh'ticos de El Salvador “Marianella García Villas” (Committee o f Family Members in Favor of the Liberty o f Prisoners and the Politically Disappeared o f El Salvador “Marianella Garcia Villas”) C O -M A D R E S

Comité de Madres y Familiares de Presos Poh'ticos, D e­ saparecidos y Asesinados de El Salvador “Monseñor Ro­ mero” (Committee o f Mothers and Relatives o f Political Prisoners, Disappeared, and Assassinated o f E l Salvador “Monseñor Romero”)


Comité de Madres y Familiares Cristianos de Presos, De­ saparecidos y Asesinados “Padre Octavio Ortiz” (Com­ mittee of Christian Mothers and Family Members of Prisoners, the Disappeared and Assassinated “Father Oc­ tavio Ortiz”)


Comisión Nacional de Asistencia a la Población Des­ plazada (National Commission for Assistance to the D is­ placed Population)


Comité de Presos Políticos de E l Salvador (Committee o f


Ciudad Segundo Montes (Segundo Montes City [later

Political Prisoners o f E l Salvador) changed to Comunidad Segundo Montes, i.e., Segundo Montes Community]) D ID E C O

Dirección General de Desarrollo Comunal (General D i­ rection o f Communal Development)


Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense (Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team)


Ejército Nacional de Democracia (National Army for Democracy)


Ecumenical Program on Central America and the Caribbean


Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (People’s Revolution­ ary Army)




Fuerzas Armadas de E l Salvador (Salvadoran Armed Forces)


Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Anticomunista-Guerra de Eliminación (Anti-Communist Liberation Armed Forces)


Fuerzas Armadas de Resistencia Nacional (Armed Forces of National Resistance)


Frente Democrático Revolucionario (Democratic Revo­ lutionary Front)


Federación Cristiana de Campesinos Salvadoreños (Chris­ tian Federation o f Salvadoran Peasants)


Federación Nacional de los Trabajadores Salvadoreños (National Federation o f Salvadoran Workers)


Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front)


Freedom o f Information Act (United States)


Fuerzas Populares de Liberación (Popular Forces of


Inter-American Court of Human Rights


Iniciativa para el Desarrollo Alternativo (Initiative for A l­


ternative Development) ID E S E S

Instituto de Desarrollo Económica Social de E l Salvador (Social Economic Development Institute o f El Salvador)


Instituto de Derechos Humanos de la Universidad Cen­ troamericana (Human Rights Institute of the University


o f Central America) Ligas Populares “28 de Febrero” (Popular Leagues


“28 February”) Movimiento Auténtico Cristiano (Authentic Christian


Movement) Movimiento Comunal de las Mujeres (Communal Wom­


en’s Movement) North American Congress on Latin America


Observadores de las Naciones Unidas en El Salvador


Organización Democrática Nacionalista (Nationalist

(United Nations Observers Mission, E l Salvador) Democratic Organization)




Patronato de Desarrollo de las Comunidades de Morazán y San Miguel (Community Development Council of Morazán and San Miguel)


Partido de Acción Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Action


Partido de Conciliación Nacional (National Conciliation


Partido Comunista de E l Salvador (Salvadoran Commu­

Party) Party) nist Party) PRESAN CA

Programa Regional de Seguridad Alimentaria y Nutricional para Centroamérica (Regional Program for Food and Nutritional Security for Central America)


Promotora de Turismo (Tourism Promotor)


Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores Centroameri­ canos (Central American Workers Revolutionary Party)


Partido Revolucionario de Unification Democrática (Rev­ olutionary Party of Democratic Unification)


Programa de Transferencia de Tierra (Land Transfer Program)


Secretaría de Reconstrucción Nacional (Secretariat of National Reconstruction)


Universidad Centro Americana, José Simeón Cañas (University o f Central America, José Simeón Cañas)


Universidad de E l Salvador (University of E l Salvador)


United States Agency for International Development


Unión de Trabajadores del Campo (Rural Workers Union)



Pacific Ocean

INTRODUCTION Reducing Cultural Distance in Human Rights Reporting

ETWEEN 1 1 and 13 December 1981, the Atlacatl Battalion, the first


immediate-reaction infantry battalion in the Salvadoran army to be trained and equipped by the United States, massacred more than a

thousand people in six hamlets located in the municipality of Meanguera, northern Morazán, E l Salvador. Forty to 50 percent o f the victims were mur­ dered in El Mozote on n December. Because the largest number of people died in that hamlet, or perhaps because El Mozote produced the principal eyewitness— a woman who miraculously escaped from the soldiers moments

before she was to be shot to death— the entire three-day massacre has come to be designated as the massacre at El Mozote. Raymond Bonner o f the New York Times and Alma Guillermoprieto of the Washington Post investigated the massacre and brought it to public attention, and Ambassador Deane Hinton and Assistant Secretary of State for InterAmerican Affairs Thomas Enders denied that a massacre had occurred. For a few weeks in early 1982, “E l Mozote” was discussed in the press and debated in Congress, but shortly after a 30 January 1982 official investigation led by embassy personnel concluded that a massacre had probably not occurred (see chap. 3), the international press lost interest in the case, which assumed the status o f just one more (among many) “alleged” army massacres in “violencetorn” E l Salvador. Major daily newspapers printed thirty-two articles in 1982, but only two o f those articles appeared between April and December,



following Thomas Enders’s testimony before the House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs. No additional investigative work followed on the Bonner and Guillermoprieto efforts. From January 1983 through December 1989, “E l Mozote” was cited in a mere fifteen articles published in major U.S. and Canadian newspapers. (During this same period, the U.S. government provided the Salvadoran military with more than $500 million in direct mil­ itary assistance.) Eight o f the fifteen citations appeared in 1984, mostly in con­ nection with the death o f Domingo Monterrosa Barrios, the Salvadoran army officer “alleged” at the time to have ordered the massacre. As the end o f the war approached following the F M L N final offensive o f November 1989, the number o f citations rose to eighteen for the period 1990-1991. E l Mozote was resurrected as a newsworthy issue in 1992 following Peace Accords that ended the war and forensic work carried out at the site (eighty-eight citations), and it became a mandatory subject of moral outrage for every liberal daily in 1993 (a whopping 114 citations), when the United Nations Truth Commission accused the U.S. government o f covering up the massacre.1 The coverage of E l Mozote shows us that for journalists, no less than for most people in the West, the daily lives o f billions of people in the rest of the world do not exist outside the parameters of crisis, scandal, and more recently, terrorism, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, droughts, crop failures, civil wars, and beheadings (for another example, see Kaplan 1994). Latino, African, and Asian peoples are as invisible to the vast majority of Euro­ pean Americans as are the ubiquitous dust particles that permeate the air. They become visible to European Americans only in light of some spectacular event, such as the Indonesian tsunami or the refugee crisis in Darfur, Sudan, often one that involves massive loss of life.2 And even then, the attention they command tends to be transitory and is soon superseded by the next crisis in some other part o f the world. Such victims are treated as inherently “unworthy,” at least as far as the mainstream media are concerned. The only worthy victims are those abused in enemy states (Ortega’s Nicaragua, Castro’s Cuba, Allende’s Chile, Sadaam Hussain’s Iraq, etc.; see Herman and Chomsky 1988,37). Human rights organizations challenge such discursive configurations, but their challenge is limited by the fact that their interest in non-European peoples begins at the point that a person becomes a victim: one who, in human rights discourse, has been arbitrarily and without just cause deprived of freedom, secu­ rity, or fife or has been threatened with such, according to the Geneva Con­ vention and other international agreements (e.g., Americas Watch Committee



1984b). Human rights organizations document violations, picking up the sto­ ries when or shortly before the violations occurred; they attribute responsibil­ ity; and they work to bring political, economic, and moral pressure on those deemed responsible in order that the violations be punished and that actions be undertaken to ensure that they do not reoccur. However, unless the victim is a prominent politician, union president, manager o f a cooperative, member o f the press, or occupies some other equally noteworthy position, identifying markers tend to be limited to basic information such as name, age, sex, and occupation. Human rights organizations pay little attention to victims’ “histories” or the histories o f their communities, that is, their lives before the interruptions wrought by capture, torture, or murder. Personal biography and collective his­ tory assume significance primarily when they are thought to lend insight into the oppressors’ motives, as when violations of the human rights o f known labor leaders or politicians are attributed to their organizational or political activities or to their beliefs. Nothing in the personal histories o f nonpolitical victims of scorched-earth policies or random bombings explains why they are repressed— nothing, that is, beyond the fact that they are peasants, students, or members of the Catholic Church. Consider, for instance, the very important Report on Human Rights in E l Salvador compiled by the Americas Watch Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union and released on 26 January 1982, one day before news stories about E l Mozote appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post. The report provided comprehensive documentation of the violation of fundamen­ tal human rights in El Salvador: the right to life, humane treatment, personal liberty, due process and a fair trial, freedom o f thought and expression, etc. The authors described the background to the tragedy, the human rights situ­ ation, and the U.S. role in E l Salvador and demonstrated through a mass of testimony, statistics, and analysis that the Salvadoran government had failed to comply with both domestic and international law and that the U.S. govern­ ment was in violation of legal codes limiting its involvement abroad, particu­ larly those laws that link foreign assistance to human rights performance. This report presents Salvadorans as either perpetrators of human rights vio­ lations, victims, or witnesses testifying to the violations. The victims o f persecu­ tion are portrayed as passive; they are acted upon. And they are discussed cat­ egorically as campesinos (peasants), clergy and religious workers, political leaders, children and youth, teachers and academics, and journalists and human rights monitors, or they are divided into more detailed categories, as are the murder



victims enumerated in appendix 5 o f the report. O f course, most Salvadorans would have no trouble identifying with the victims discussed in the Report on Human Rights in E l Salvador, since behind each Venido Humberto Bazzaglia, student, twenty-four years old, killed by the National Guard on 3 October 1980 (Americas Watch Committee and Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights 1982, 50), most Salvadoran readers could envision a cousin, a brother-in-law, a godfather, or a son and at least imagine the victim as a living person with a past and a personal trajectory for the future, terminated by the National Guard. But for the U.S. citizen taxpayer whose image of El Salvador approximates a dystopia o f military strongmen, corrupt bureaucrats, and illiter­ ate peasants, the report holds few surprises. For them, Venido Humberto Bazzaglia and the thousands like him remain stick figures. This approach to human rights is a realistic one considering the constraints— institutional, time, political, financial— under which such organizations oper­ ate. And with the constraints under which their informants operate, how could it be otherwise? W ho would dare to speak openly and truthfully about victims in the midst of civil war or where the state has undertaken a campaign o f sys­ tematic repression? The fact that human rights organizations key their analyses to international laws that provide substantial protection to civilians who live in the midst o f civil war makes little difference, because the laws are not obeyed. But I want to suggest that, pragmatic or not, the practices that dominate human rights reporting reproduce the effects of an ideological vision that is dominant in the West of a world divided in two: a homogenous mass of poor, Third World humanity, cut more or less from the same cloth, on the one hand, and an aggregation o f struggling Western individuals, each unique, each work­ ing to fulfill her potential, on the other. For those whose view o f the world is framed by it, this discourse, I believe, depreciates the fives of Salvadorans, Sri Lankans, Senegalese, and others, and consequently it depreciates the sig­ nificance o f their suffering and their struggle to overcome that suffering. Once depreciated, that suffering becomes a lot easier to accept, as do the explanations given for it by the governments, businesses, and others responsible. I believe that until this very bipolar and Western-centered view o f the world changes, the massacre of a thousand peasants by a U.S.-trained and U.S.-equipped bat­ talion like the Atlacatl will not be regarded in the West as being as significant, as important, or as newsworthy as the tragic shooting, drowning, electrocution, or collective suicide, etc., o f ten struggling Anglos seeking to mold their indi­ vidual destinies.



Let me be clear. I do not impugn the beliefs or question the motives of human rights advocates who perform admirable work under difficult, often dangerous, circumstances. They make available to both researchers and the gen­ eral public detailed knowledge o f human rights violations, and they provide an important counterweight to those who claim that these situations give no cause for concern. They do so from the perspective o f an abstract humanism that, at least in theory, values all lives equally, regardless of race, ethnicity, gen­ der, or social class. But the various factors that constrain their investigations, combined with a juridical model of reportage (Americas Watch documents often read like court briefs), place severe limits on their ability to challenge the complacent ethnocentrism o f Westerners who rationalize their right to intervene in other nations’ affairs by saying that “They” (the Others) cannot “keep their house in order.” The universal valuation o f human life and other humanitarian ideals that underpin progressive human rights reporting are not necessarily shared by the target audience. It is important, in order to improve the chances o f reaching that audience, to develop new discursive strategies for presenting human rights problems. Offering such a discursive strategy is one, though not the only, object o f this book. I f Americas Watch was constrained by the exigencies o f the situation fol­ lowing the massacre, the same cannot be said of Mark Danner, who researched the case and published his results twelve years later. Danner’s extensive (“booklength,” as one commentator put it) article “The Truth o f El Mozote” was pub­ lished in the 6 December 1993 issue o f the New Yorker? “Once in a rare while,” opined New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis (1993) in reference to the Danner piece, “a writer re-examines a debated episode o f recent history with such thoroughness and integrity that the truth can no longer be in doubt.” Lewis continued: “Over the years politicians and journalists have differed bit­ terly about what happened there—who did the killing, indeed whether there was a massacre at all. The argument is over now.” Indeed! Given that two experienced journalists visited the site and inter­ viewed eyewitnesses less than a month after the event, the surprising thing is that the fact of the massacre and the identities of the perpetrators were ever questioned— that, in other words, an argument over “what happened there” de­ veloped in the first place. Despite several months o f research (but only a single short trip, in November 1992, to E l Salvador) and interviews with former sol­ diers, Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional [FM LN ]) commanders, and E l Mozote survivors



FIGURE i Wooden crosses at the foot o f an eroded adobe wall, part o f the remnants o f the home o f E l Mozote resident Israel Márquez. According to E l Mozote massacre survivor Rufina Amaya, the remains o f dozens o f women murdered by the Adacatl Battalion lie underneath the dirt and rubble o f the interior o f the ruin.

(the two persons who escaped after being captured by the army and others who left town before the troops arrived), Danner says very litde about El Mozote as a social location, that is, a community with a complex and interesting history and a rich tapestry o f prewar social relationships. He represents the massacre victims en masse as poor, illiterate peasants— apolitical innocents butchered by a military hell-bent on teaching the guerrillas and their masas (supporters— among whom the residents of this mountain community were counted by the government) a lesson. Apart from one or two passing observations, Danner’s prose allows El Mozote and its former inhabitants to be absorbed within a ge­ neric vision of a Salvadoran countryside populated by “people without history” (W olf 1982). Excise a few geographical specificities and Danner could have been speaking o f Cabañas, La Unión, San Vicente, or any other department in E l Salvador or some rural area o f Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, or Peru. Even the witness Rufina Amaya, who became the symbol par excellence o f the sur­ vivors o f government repression in E l Salvador, as did Rigoberta Menchú in Guatemala, is dehistoricized (unlike Menchú, who, after all, was enabled to tell



her story). In Danner’s account, Amaya’s history becomes o f interest at the mo­ ment that local merchant Marcos Diaz informed E l Mozote residents o f the impending government military invasion; for Danner, her suffering begins at that point as well. He ignores the fact that for several decades before the mas­ sacre, Amaya endured a daily struggle against the effects of the grinding rural poverty that afflicted most El Mozote inhabitants. The one-sided representa­ tion o f Amaya as massacre survivor who observed her husband’s murder and heard the cries o f her children in their last agony has persisted to this day (see chap. 8). O f course, it could be argued that Danner was not interested in local history. But rather than a justification, to assert such a position can be taken as a manifestation o f the larger problem, for Danner wrote a great deal about the Salvadoran military, the figure o f Lt. Col. Domingo Monterrosa, and the thoughts and actions o f U.S. Embassy personnel— powerful figures and institutions all. Would it have been too much for him to have devoted equal attention to the victims and survivors, whose beliefs and relationships were at least as varied and complex as those of the people who killed them and o f those who financed and then covered up the killing?41 will discuss Danner’s portrayal of E l Mozote and suggest an alternative to it at various points in this book, especially in chapters 4 and 5. What form, then, might a plausible alternative writing of human rights assume? The testimonial is one possibility. Testimonials are produced by wit­ nesses who have been and continue to be the subjects of exploitation and oppression by groups in a dominant social, economic, and political position. Since testimonials involve witnessing— the speaker testifies to events experi­ enced— the perspective is that o f the first-person “I ” rather than that o f the third-person “he,” “she,” or “they.” As a result, testimonies eschew the passive contemplation of a life in favor of urgency and involvement. Since the witness wishes to draw attention to events that may have not been publicized and to disseminate them to a wider public, testimonial literature exhibits partisanship rather than neutrality. The writer seeks to convince the reader of the justice of the struggle and to solicit sympathy and support for it. Through the narrator/speaker’s testimony, the reader learns about the condi­ tion o f a larger, oppressed sector of society: indigenous people, women, workers, peasants, or some combination of these. In this sense, the narrator is both an individual and a representative of a social stratum, any member of which could have given roughly similar testimony. The voice o f the witness fills the space



o f the text. The details o f birth, childhood, marriage, daily Ufe, work, suffering, and so on are the means through which social and cultural distance is reduced between narrator and reader. The text depicts the narrator as a human being with aspirations, capabilities, and morals who is embedded within a social situ­ ation that narrows the opportunities for realizing her ideals. Finally, testimoni­ als often project a future ideal that represents an improvement on the present and that serves as a goal toward which people struggle and against which they measure the present’s shortcomings. The reader is invited to participate actively in the construction o f this future (Stephen 1994; Gugelberger and Kearney 1991; Binford 2012). Isabel Allende said that “probably the strongest literature being written nowadays is by those who stand unsheltered by the system: blacks, Indians, homosexuals, exiles and, especially, women— the crazy people o f the world, who dare to believe in their own force” (1989, 55).s El Salvador’s struggle has pro­ duced important testimonials by members o f opposition forces (Dalton 1987; Diaz 1992; Martinez 1992; Vásquez Diaz and Escalón Fontán 2012) and the popular movement (Stephen 1994) as well as by committed foreign participants from the North who identified with the struggles o f the poor and elected to leave the shelters of privilege to accompany them in their struggles for social and economic justice (Lievens [1986] 1989; Metzi 1988; Clements 1984).6 I believe that every member o f an oppressed group has a story to tell, though many people are unable to recall the details o f the story or tell it well enough to maintain the interest o f a culturally and geographically remote audience. Most (if not all) societies produce oral historians— guardians o f collective history and truth. But unlike the collective histories transmitted by the Saramakan elders discussed by Richard Price (1981), testimonies are essentially individual accounts even when they embody collective experience. For this reason they are constrained by the knowledge, experience, and personal orientation o f the witness.7 Despite these limits, I find testimonies particularly useful and have incorpo­ rated segments o f them in this book. In fact, during intermittent ethnographic work in northern Morazán spread over two decades (ten visits to the region between 1991 and 2012), what began as interviews often reverted to testimonials as the informants-cum-witnesses narrated in great detail the violence wreaked upon them by the Salvadoran military and security forces during the war and the ravages o f neoliberal policies after it. However, this book explores another approach to writing that is different from testimonials but shares with them



the object of inserting individual and collective history into the investigation of human rights abuses. Without denigrating or stereotyping the individuals who lived in E l Mozote— the histories-cum-testimonies told by the survivors form the basis for the following account—I attempt to locate El Mozote as a material, social, and symbolic place, the meaning of which has come to tran­ scend the massacre that occurred there. I f testimonials elucidate collective his­ tory through the eyes of one individual, I wish to situate the individuals (the oppressed and the oppressors) making that history by approaching it from a multiplicity o f perspectives that will converge on a single episode in the Sal­ vadoran civil war: the massacre at E l Mozote. Thus, I discuss E l Mozote as a unique community and locate it within a regional context (chaps. 4, 5), but I also place the massacre within the longue dure'e o f events that gave rise to the Salvadoran national security state (chap. 2). Further, and in contrast to others, I treat the massacre as a living event (chaps. 6,8,9, and 11).Throughout this book I will argue that in a very real way, the success or failure of the Salvadoran people, and particularly of their government, to “come to terms” with E l M o­ zote— the single largest massacre o f the civil war— says a great deal about the potential for peaceful reconciliation in post-civil war El Salvador. It also says a great deal about human rights and the limits o f that “Third World” version of human rights known as “transitional justice.” In the concluding chapter, I will argue that framing the massacre exclusively as a human rights problem— usu­ ally conceptualized in relation to civil and political rights— leaves in place the unequal economic relationships that are at the root of the violations that hu­ man rights activists seek to eliminate. To those ends this work is organized as follows. Chapter 1 briefly describes the massacre at E l Mozote. Chapter 2, “The Eye o f the Oligarchy,” traces the roots o f the massacre into the social and economic transformation o f the past century that gave rise, through a gradual though violent process, to a small, immensely wealthy oligarchy intent on protecting its ill-gotten gains from the workers and peasants who produced them. The chapter also documents the post-World War II U.S. role in the creation and installation o f a security appa­ ratus that reached into the heart o f most rural communities. The U.S. govern­ ment may not have injected the virus o f Cold War ideology into E l Salvador, but it certainly nourished it. Chapter 3 summarizes the cover-up o f the mas­ sacre. Here I acknowledge my debt both to M ark Danner’s investigative work and to the National Security Archive for having made available to researchers a plethora of documents acquired through Freedom of Information Act requests.



Chapters 4 and 5 remain the core chapters o f this edition, as they were o f the first edition, because they present a portrait o f E l Mozote at odds in many ways with earlier depictions. Chapter 4 outlines El Mozote’s short history as a congregate community and analyzes prewar social and economic relationships there. I hope that after perusing this chapter the reader comes to the same conclusion that I did when writing it: that El Mozote was a relatively success­ ful example of liberal rural development theory put into practice, the kind of community about which U SA ID bureaucrats rhapsodize. This makes it all the more ironic that it was targeted for eradication by the Salvadoran military. In chapter 5, “The Politics o f Repression and Survival in Northern Morazán,” I discuss experiences within the community during the two-year period leading up to the massacre; there I attempt to rebut three broadly held misconceptions about El Mozote that continue to be repeated two decades after the publica­ tion of the first edition of this book: first, that the populations political neutral­ ity could be attributed to its embrace o f evangelical Christianity; second, that the inhabitants had previously escaped repression at the hands o f military and security forces; and third, that the entire population o f the community (with notable exceptions) was wiped out, meaning that few survived to pass on El Mozote’s collective history. A fourth misconception, less widespread than the previous three, is that the massacre unfolded in E l Mozote only as opposed to encompassing a large region composed o f households affiliated with at least six dispersed, rural hamlets. I should mention that eight months o f fieldwork in northern Morazán (June-July 1991, July-December 1992) carried out before taking up the El Mozote case provided me the broad background knowledge of northern Morazanian history and society that proved critical in understanding both E l Mozote’s “typicality” and its “exceptionalism.” New published work and an additional six months’ fieldwork with a team of local and foreign research­ ers carried out in northern Morazán on a different project during the summers of 2008 and 2010-2012 enabled me to acquire information that corrected some errors o f fact, bring the story up-to-date, and deepen my understanding of a variety o f related issues. Chapter 6, “Investigation and Judgment,” turns toward the present to de­ scribe efforts to pursue justice in the case. In that chapter I discuss the critical role played by the northern Morazanians who initiated the case and pressed it forward; by contrast, public credit tended to go to Tutela Legal and the Truth Commission. I document the role of the investigation in the peace process, the state’s resistance to forensic work at El Mozote, and the conduct and results



of that work itself, conducted by the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team. Chapter 7, “A Reformed Military?” counters claims that the Salvadoran mili­ tary reformed following the period o f massacres and death-squad killings of the early 1980s. In particular, it assesses critically the wartime claim that a de­ cline in the number o f assassinations, disappearances, and massacres evidenced a growing military respect for human rights and an improvement in the human rights situation. I argue for a distinction between measurable human rights per­ formance and respect for human rights by pointing out that the former often entails a strategic capitulation to external political pressure— such as a threat­ ened cutoff or reduction in U.S. military aid—without any significant change in human rights sentiment. Chapter 8, “History and Memory,” discusses a me­ morial mass and museum exhibition about the massacre and argues that El Mozote will remain a “five” issue for generations to come. I also show that early postwar repopulation (155 households with more than 750 people as of October 1994) endowed E l Mozote with a concrete as well as symbolic existence after more than a decade o f total abandonment. Chapter 9, the first of three new chapters, examines the postwar configu­ ration o f El Mozote, focusing on the social demography of resettlement and economic precarity in order to grasp the widespread political conservatism and the tendency o f many people to hold the wartime FM LN regional presence responsible for “provoking” the army into widespread murder. But this chap­ ter also chronicles the changing relationships between residents and sympa­ thetic outsiders and the organization o f a critical mass o f people who overcame their fear to move the case from E l Salvador, where it was stalled by a postwar amnesty law, to the domain o f the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and later the Inter-American Court o f Human Rights. Chapter 10 then employs the ethnographic present to describe and analyze the Inter-American Court tribunal on the E l Mozote case in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on 26 April 2012, and the resulting sentence and implications for the General Amnesty Law that had prohibited official investigation of this and other cases of wartime human rights violations. The concluding chapter takes up transitional justice and human rights discourse and practice more generally. The argument in this chapter draws on earlier discussions and analyses and is concerned with the manner in which a very limited conception o f human rights has come to fill the space of discursive analysis and crowd out or subordinate alternative ap­ proaches centered on social movements seeking substantive changes in social relations o f production. I argue that fundamental human rights goals cannot be



met in the absence o f a broad conception o f social justice that embraces but is not exhausted by reparations for past harms, judicial reforms, trials of perpetra­ tors, and fair elections. M y alternative approach to writing human rights, then, entails writing the visible and invisible, institutionalized and noninstitutionalized ways through which dominant classes enact social injustices and seek to hegemonize their activities.


N 1974 Rafael Arce Zablah, a founder of the People’s Revolutionary Army


(Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo [ERP]), reconnoitered northern Morazán, identifying it as one of the only areas in highly populated El Sal­

vador appropriate for the establishment of a guerrilla rear guard.1 The region’s 225 square miles of terrain located north o f the Torola River is topographi­ cally rugged, endowed with a reliable year-round water supply, and home to a peasantry integrated into capitalist production relations principally through seasonal migration (Henriquez Consalvi 1992, 25; see map 2). Recalling his prewar organizing trips to the region, Juan Ramón Medrano (Comandante “Balta”)2 wrote that in contrast to the peasants o f Usulután, who were undisciplined, worked the cotton harvest and related more with the city, were more affected by alcohol and were violent among themselves, the Morazanian peasants were better organized and structured in Christian communities, [and] were middle and poor peasants many o f whom had resolved their subsistence needs, although others were quite impoverished. But all were very united and displayed profound Christian values. (Medrano and Raudales 1994,69)

While Medrano overestimated the prewar influence of liberation theology in northern Morazán, it is a fact that the E R P organized in the region on the



back o f the progressive Catholicism that was sweeping Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s (Lernoux 1980) and that played an instrumental role in the revolutions in E l Salvador (Pearce 1986; Montgomery 1982; Hassett and Lacey 1991; Binford 2004; Chavez 2010; Sánchez 2015), Nicaragua (Lancaster 1988), and Guatemala (Menchú 1984). In northern Morazán the main proponent and practitioner o f this “theology of liberation,” through which the Church identi­ fied with the poor and demanded “that Christians be a force actively work­ ing to liberate the vast majority of the people from poverty and oppression” (Montgomery 1982,100), was Father Miguel Ventura, sent to the region in 1973 to direct the newly formed parish centered in Torola (see chap. 5). Through the Bible-reading and discussion groups organized and led by a network o f local catechists working under Ventura, many peasants developed a growing aware­ ness o f the relationship between their poverty and the tremendous wealth that accrued to the oligarchy; lamented the state’s unwillingness to address the most fundamental needs for infrastructure, health care, and education; discussed the failure o f liberal efforts to democratize the country (especially the fraudulent elections o f 1972 and 1977); and recounted the daily injustices that they suffered at the hands o f the National Guard and the Treasury Police, which occupied posts in the municipal townships and worked hand in glove with large landowners and wealthy merchants.3 By the time Rafael Arce Zablah called the first meetings with the “natural leaders” of the communities west of the calle negra— the asphalt road that divides northern Morazán— many peasants understood the web of interests and contradictions that produced their poverty and oppres­ sion and opted to join clandestine military committees in order to prepare for the armed conflict that Arce predicted. Others less disposed to take up arms participated in the above-ground political protests of the Popular Leagues “28 February” (LP-28), the E R P ’s mass organization formed in 1977 and named to commemorate the government massacre of up to 200 demonstrators protesting the 1977 election (Whitfield 1995,101-2). Developments in northern Morazán followed a course similar to that in Chalatenango and elsewhere except for the absence in northern Morazán of organizations such as the Rural Workers Union (Unión Trabajadores del Campo [UTC]) and the Christian Federation o f Salvadoran Peasants (Federación Cristiana de Campesinos Salvadoreños [FE C C A S]), which provided an intermediate ground between progressive Catholicism and armed insurgency (see Pearce 1986; Chávez 2010).4 For several years the E R P worked quietly and clandestinely to expand its support base in northern Morazán. Meanwhile, its urban cadres carried out a



series of brazen bank robberies and spectacular kidnappings o f wealthy landowners in order to build up a war chest (see Martinez 1992). Following the fraudulent election in 1977 of Gen. Humberto Romero, who added his name to the long list o f military presidents who had ruled E l Salvador since M ax­ imiliano Hernández Martínez seized power in 1932, tensions in the country approached the breaking point. Tbe rapid growth of mass organizations in the cities was countered by a tidal wave of state-sponsored repression. In northern Morazán the National Guard and the Treasury Police met rumors of guerrilla activity with increasing surveillance, harassment, and cap­ tures of suspected civilians. The E R P responded by progressing from clandes­ tine military training (often carried out at night on soccer fields by the fight of the moon) to weapons recuperation and propaganda operations. A t the end of the 1970s, the peasant guerrillas responded to security-force massacres and death-squad operations by assaulting National Guard and Treasury Police patrols. By late 1980, National Guard and Treasury Police forces, along with local Civil Defense forces, patrolled around the municipal centers while surren­ dering large areas of the countryside to the day-to-day control of the E R P and its civilian collaborators (see Binford 1998).5 The die o f the future was cast in October 1980, when the E R P joined with four other leftist political-military groups to form the Farabundo Marti N a­ tional Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacio­ nal [FM LN ]).6 The groups maintained their prewar names and identities and tended to operate in different areas o f the country where each had developed its historic following. And despite personal, political, and strategic differences, the F M L N demonstrated a capacity for collective planning and action. That same month northern Morazán became the target o f the largest government military operation since El Salvador fought Honduras in the Hundred Hours War of 1969. Contingents of National Guard soldiers and Treasury Police of­ ficers joined troops from Military Detachment No. 4 in San Francisco Gotera and commandos from the Third Brigade base in San Miguel to entrap E R P units in a hammer-and-anvil operation west of the calle negra. Grossly out­ numbered and possessing only a few high-powered rifles, inexperienced rebel units used homemade contact bombs to retard the advance of more than two thousand government troops. For over two weeks they shifted their defensive fines gradually southward. Finally, the ammunition ran out, and the rebels were forced to retreat to safety across the Torola River, leaving behind hundreds of civilians whom they had been protecting. In the largest massacre in northern



Morazán to that date, army and security forces killed over thirty unarmed men, women, and children who had taken refuge in the church in Villa E l Rosario. More civilians would have been killed but for the efforts of Capt. Francisco Emilio Mena Sandoval, a member o f the progressive Military Youth Move­ ment, who called off a planned bombardment (Rubio and Balsebre 2009; Mena Sandoval 1991; López Vigil 1991).The October 1980 invasion established north­ ern Morazán as a region o f great strategic concern to the Salvadoran military and F M L N guerrillas alike. Peace would not come to the area for more than eleven years and at a cost of an estimated five thousand residents dead between civilians and combatants— over 10 percent o f the 1980 population.7 During the next thirteen months, additional army operations and security-force and death-squad murders combined to terrorize the civilian population. The Hu­ man Rights Commission of Segundo Montes and, later, Tutela Legal (2008), documented massacres o f ten or more people in December 1980 in Torola, January 1981 and July 1981 in Villa El Rosario, and March 1981 in Cacaopera. Survivors also testified to sixty assassinations in northern Morazán during the eleven-month period before the E l Mozote massacre (see chap. 5, tables 2 and 3). Were an accurate accounting possible, the numbers would be higher. But the massacre at E l Mozote differed greatly from preceding repressive acts. The E l Mozote massacre did not involve a spur-of-the-moment decision to eliminate guerrilla sympathizers but was a meticulous operation intended to drain the civilian “water” from the sea and thereby strand the guerrilla “fish.” Operación Rescate (Operation Rescue), as the 7-17 December operation was ironically named by the Salvadoran military, was an operation o f tierra arrasada (scorched earth). And to carry out the plan, what better instrument o f destruc­ tion than the Atlacatl Battalion, the first immediate-reaction infantry bat­ talion armed and trained by the United States, entering into duty in March 1981 and named for a fictitious Pipil chieftain, an imaginary figure whom every schoolchild learned had died resisting the Spanish during the conquest?8 The facts of the El Mozote massacre are contained in a detailed document composed by Tutela Legal, the human rights organization of the Catholic Arch­ diocese o f San Salvador, from the testimony of more than a dozen witnesses (Tutela Legal 1991). This information was later supplemented by the investiga­ tive work o f Mark Danner in his book The Massacre at E l Mozote (1994). How­ ever, Tutela Legal provides the most detailed and comprehensive account of the massacre and its aftermath in a 2008 book-length account. According to both Tutela Legal and Danner, elements o f the Atlacatl Battalion disembarked



from helicopters in Perquín, Morazán, on 8 December 1981. Atlacatl officials forcefully recruited ten local men to act as guides, and for the next seventy-two hours, some o f the battalions five companies, which totaled about twelve hun­ dred men, marched south toward E l Mozote and other areas located east of the calle negra. Whereas the October 1980 invasion had been focused west o f the asphalt road, in Torola, Jocoaitique, San Fernando, and Villa El Rosario, munic­ ipalities in which the E R P developed important early nuclei, the December 1981 assault was aimed primarily at La Guacamaya (located in the municipal­ ity of Meanguera), site of the E R P command post and the clandestine Radio



Venceremos. The rural ham let o f E l M o zo te is located less than an hour’s w alk north from L a G uacam aya .9

Military planners designated the Adacatl Battalion as the “strike force” that would confront guerrillas fleeing from units of regular-army and security-force troops penetrating the area from the Torola River to the south and Joateca to the east (see Asociación Pro-Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos 2011, 130-31). During their march southward from Perquin, different company-size units cleaved off at distinct points to pursue objectives that lay along roughly parallel routes running from the northwest to the southeast. The battle plan laid out for the First Company took it through Arambala and on to E l Mozote, Los Toriles, and La Guacamaya (see the map in Danner 1993,68; 1994,54).10 As Danner notes in his text and on the map that accompanies it, other companies left the calle negra at Los Quebrachos and assaulted La Joya, La Ranchería, and Cerro Pando. A more comprehensive investigation, published many years later by Tutela Legal and affirmed in testimony taken for a 2012 court case, indicated that many Atlacatl troops arrived by helicopter, disembarking on Arada Vieja and Quebrachos, two hills overlooking La Joya (ISD E M U 2013, 67; Valencia Caravantes 2011; Tutela Legal 2008,50,56). The bloodletting began on Wednesday, 9 December, in Arambala, where soldiers killed seven males whose names were on a list of suspects carried by one of the officers. The following day the First Company proceeded toward E l Mozote. After a brief armed confrontation with a guerrilla unit somewhere around E l Portillón (Tutela Legal 2008, 49; Danner 1993, 68; 1994, 55), the troops arrived outside El Mozote and encamped while planes and helicopters strafed and bombed surrounding hillsides to “soften up” the area.11 On the late afternoon o f 10 December, forty-three years to the day that the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration o f Human Rights (Dundes Renteln 1990,27-28), soldiers entered E l Mozote, rousted the inhabitants from their houses, and assembled them in the central plaza area, known as The Plain, where they forced them to he down in the street. At the time, El Mozote was swollen with refugees from the surrounding countryside who apparently had been warned by a respected local store owner named Marcos Diaz, acting on the advice o f either an army officer in San Francisco Gotera or soldiers at a roadblock on the calle negra, that the military was going to invade the area and that anyone caught outside town would be killed, while the lives o f people congregated in El Mozote would be respected (Tutela Legal 1991, 6; 2008,41). Before the army arrived, many people had already fled the area out of fear,



FIG U R E 2 E l Mozote shortly after the massacre. The photo was taken from Cerro Cruz by an unknown photographer, probably a member o f the FM L N . The Atlacatl battalion entered from the right. Marcos Diaz’s two-story home is visible at the extreme left on the right side o f a road leading to L a Guacamaya and La Laguna. Collapsed roofs and burned homes are visible on close inspection o f the image. (Photo courtesy o f the Museum o f the Word and Image.)

while others were away working dry-season jobs high up in the mountains near the Honduran border, in agro-export coffee plantations in the volcanic cordil­ lera, or elsewhere (see chap. 6). But the soldiers’ behavior was not reassuring. They kicked and threatened people, seized their jewelry and other valuables, accused them o f being guerril­ las, and demanded to know where they had hidden their weapons. After about an hour, the soldiers ordered their captives back into the houses for the night and warned them not to show “even so much as their noses” outside (Danner I993> 72; 1994,64).The houses were crowded, hot, and stuffy, and those interned in them remained awake during the night, hungry and apprehensive about what the dawn might bring. Meanwhile, the Atlacatl troops celebrated the town’s capture with laughter, singing, and gunfire.

TABLE i List o f structures and inhabitants from the

El Mozote survey. See figure 3 for locations. Ponciano Argueta


Dominga Argueta


Teófilo Márquez Alvarenga


Saltación Argueta



Israel Márquez



Efraín Márquez


Lucía Chicas




Santos Márquez


Augustina García


José María Márquez


Donadla Peñera


Ambrosia Claros


José Nilo Claros



Eloy Márquez



Marcos Díaz





Angel Ramos


Valentina Chicas


Pedro Rodriguez


Andrea Chicas



Maximiliano Rodríguez



Church and Sacristy


Sofia Márquez



Rosendo Vigil


l 6.

Casa Comunal


José María Claro Guevara



Benita Díaz


Cervando Guevara


Ignacio Chicas





20 .

Daniel Romero


José Carmen Romero


María Romero


Raquel Romero



TABLE i ( continued)


Francisca Díaz

died before


Claros Guevara


23 -

Alfredo Márquez


Martina Claros


Eufraio Márquez


Anastacia Vigil



Perfecto Díaz


Andrea Claros


Santos Argueta


Victoriana Díaz Márquez


José María Márquez Argueta


Hilda Hortensia Márquez



Narciso Márquez



Graciliano Argueta


Sofia Márquez


Sofía Argueta


Leoncio Díaz


Fernando Hernández


Andrea ?

died before

Leonardo Márquez


María Diana Claros


Leocario Argueta


Carmen Argueta


34 -

Santana Díaz



Martina Díaz





Tranquilino Argueta


Ovelia Márquez


Israel Márquez


Petronila Vigil





3 °.

3 i-


33 -





FIG URE 3 E l Mozote, layout o f The Plain. See table i for corresponding list o f structures.

A t about three o’clock in the morning o f n December 1981, Captain Walter Oswaldo Salazar, commanding the Atlacatl Battalion’s 6th Company, met with the officers under his command and ordered them to wait for dawn and assem­ ble the inhabitants in the church— an order that was likely circulating through other units (Tutela Legal 2008, 54-55). Two hours later, soldiers pounded on doors, rousted people from the houses, and concentrated them in front of the small, whitewashed-adobe Church o f the Three Kings. After forcing the people to stand for several hours, the Atlacatl troops divided them into two groups: the men and older boys were driven into the church, while the women, girls, and young children of both sexes were gathered in the vacant home o f Alfredo Márquez, a local merchant who had left town. Together the groups numbered between four hundred and six hundred people. “A t this time,” Tutela Legal reports, “most o f the Atlacatl troops were asking themselves what was going to happen with these people” (2008, 55). Lt. Col. Monterrosa called a meeting with his officers at an elevated point in



the community, “presumably to communicate by radio with the commanders of the Armed Forces and to receive instructions.” Col. Jaime Flores Grijalva, commander o f the Third Infantry Brigade, and Col. Alejandro Cisneros, in charge of the Commando Instruction Center, arrived by helicopter to partici­ pate in this meeting. It is not certain whether they were present to receive or to transmit the order to exterminate the population. W hat is known, based on anonymous and obviously sensitive sources, is that following the meeting, Monterrosa and his subordinates selected the third section of the 5th Company, made up of thirty to forty men under the command o f Lt. Salvador Guzmán Parada, to execute the order. This group was transported by helicopter to The Plain in E l Mozote, and all other Atlacatl soldiers present “were retired to peripheral points.” According to the Tutela Legal report (2008), “No one in the battalion was allowed to remain in The Plain without authorization”; only “the group designated for the extermination operation and officers who had taken over custody of the civilians from the initial group” were allowed (56). Many o f the men were blindfolded, tied up, and forced to lie boca abajo (face down) on the dirt floor o f the church. Soldiers carried out perfunctory and su­ perficial interrogations with the prisoners, prodding them with bayonets, beat­ ing them, and demanding to know the location o f their weapons and whether they collaborated with the guerrillas (Danner 1993, 78—79; 1994, 68-69). But given the order to finish off the population, the interrogations, which never seem to have been a very high priority anyway, soon ceased, and the kill­ ing began. Danner narrates that about eight o’clock in the morning, “a series of massive assassinations” took place in the interior o f the church, many o f them involving decapitation with machetes. Though a few people were doubt­ lessly decapitated, the vast majority were bound, blindfolded, marched in small groups— the survivor Rufina Amaya said groups o f four each— into nearby hills, fields, or to the brick-walled and tile-roofed elementary school by soldiers of the third section o f the 5th Company, and forced to fie face down on the ground, after which, according to a witness quoted in the Tutela Legal report (1991, 8), “they received a burst o f gunfire in the head.” Between eight o’clock in the morning and four o’clock in the afternoon, several hundred people were killed in this manner. Meanwhile, soldiers guarding the periphery shot off their weapons, either to discourage the F M L N from attacking or to sow more ter­ ror among the civilian population. The forced march o f small groups of men from the church to various points in and around the community, the begging and pleading followed by gunfire and silence, and the cacophony o f soldiers



shooting off small arms in the periphery lasted for hours, a macabre play scripted by the operations planners. By midday or thereabouts the executioners finished with the men. Adacad troops arrived at the Alfredo Márquez house, selected out older girls and young women, and forced them to walk up the wooded hillsides o f Cerro Cruz and Cerro Chingo, where they repeatedly raped them over the course o f the next twelve to eighteen hours and then murdered them. Some were shot; others may have been stabbed or strangled. Late in the afternoon the soldiers began to re­ move the remainder o f the adult women in groups o f ten or more, followed by the older women, and lasdy the children. Not a living soul was to be allowed to escape, although at least one person did. While the armed escort sought to con­ trol one of the last groups of elderly, pleading, crying, and praying campesinas— some of whom had earlier seen men cut down or marched off to be shot— Rufina Amaya, wife of Domingo Claros and mother of six, slipped off the path and dropped down between a crabapple tree and a pineapple plant, covering her­ self with a small branch (see chap, io, nn).12'Ihe guards accompanying the group did not notice her, and she eventually fled the area, but not before the children, four of hers included, were murdered within her earshot on that dark December night (Danner 1993,81-84; 1994, 73-76; Tutela Legal 2008,72-84).13 The church, the sacristy, and the homes o f Israel Márquez, Isidro Claros, and José María Márquez—-wherever people had been killed or the bodies of the vic­ tims dumped— were set on fire with gasoline and ocote wood, and the flicker­ ing flames must have effected a macabre counterpoint to the cries o f the dying children. From her cramped hiding place next to the house o f Israel Márquez, Rufina Amaya overheard the following conversation among a group o f resting Atlacatl soldiers: “Well, we’ve killed all the old men and wom en.. . . But there’s still a lot of kids down there. You know, a lot o f those kids are really goodlooking, really cute. I wouldn’t want to kill all of them. Maybe we can keep some o f them, you know— take them home with us.” His confederate disagreed: “We have to finish everyone, you know that. That’s the colonel’s order. This is an operativo de tierra arrasada here and we have to kill the kids as well, or we’ll get it ourselves” (cited in Danner 1993,84; 1994,74-75). And so the order was given and the order was completed. Based on the testimony of Rufina Amaya and according to Tutela Legal (1991,10), the soldiers o f the Adacatl proceeded to assassinate the small children, who num­ bered several hundred, concentrated in the house o f Alfredo Márquez. During



said assassinations, the children’s shouts for help could be heard.. . . “Mama, they are killing us,” “they are strangling us,” “Mama, they are sticking us with knives.” After killing the minors, the soldiers set fire to the house o f Alfredo Márquez in whose interior were found the bodies o f the children. While the home blazed in flames the cry o f a minor who called for his mother could be heard, after which an unidentified soldier gave the following order: “go and kill this bastard \cabrón\ that you haven’t killed well.” Subsequently several shots were heard, soon after which the cries o f the minor were no longer heard.14

In a story that has been told many times in many places and has assumed mythic stature in northern Morazán, Amaya crawled across the road and under a barbed-wire fence in the blackness of the night and hid herself in a patch of maguey. There she carved a little hole in the ground and stuck her face into it so that she could silently mourn for her murdered family (Tutela Legal 1991, 12-13; 2008,79). She waited for darkness, and narrowly avoiding detection, she crept away, the thorns o f the maguey plants ripping her clothing and piercing her body. Amaya wandered in a daze until she happened by chance into oth­ ers who had fled the area, and eventually she was taken into custody by the FM LN and became the main witness to the massive carnage that the Atlacatl wreaked in the hamlet’s central area. The Tutela Legal (1991,14-27) report listed 393 known victims at El Mozote by name (where known), age (often estimated), and family association; for all hamlets the total number o f victims enumerated reached 794. In 1994 Mark Danner reviewed the Tutela list on the basis of more recent information and reduced the count slightly to 370 victims in E l Mozote.15 In its expanded 2008 account, Tutela Legal raised the number of dead in E l Mozote to 406 and the overall number to 819, counting 7 deaths in Arambala in the run-up to the massacre proper (Tutela Legal 2008,132-66). But numerous other victims went unrecorded at the time, because years after the fact the witnesses had forgot­ ten them, or, in the case of those who died in El Mozote, because they were among those from surrounding rural areas who had come into E l Mozote on the advice o f Marcos Diaz and were not known to locals. Their identification awaited the utilization o f a more systematic and some would argue more “sci­ entific” approach. In any case, I shall attempt to demonstrate in chapter 6 that about one-third of the prewar population died in the massacre, and in chap­ ter 10 I will explain that the total number o f documented deaths exceeded a thousand.



Having wiped out the population in E l Mozote, the soldiers continued on to Los Toriles the following day, and thence to L a Guacamaya, which had long been abandoned by the E R P rebels and their supporters. During the same period (n-13 December), other groups o f soldiers were besieging other hamlets. The modus operandi varied slightly from one site to another; sometimes they arrived on foot, though occasionally (as in the case o f L a Joya) by helicopter. But the results were everywhere the same: the extermination o f every human being and every animal that could be located, and the destruction o f homes, beehives, sugar mills, and other personal and productive property. Drawing on the testimony o f those who by good fortune or by foresight escaped the Atlacatl’s deathtrap, the Tutela Legal report narrates how the Atlacatl arrived at this or that rural hamlet; slaughtered men, women, and children; killed or carted off the domestic animals; and set fire to the homes. It plods along, systematically describing the horror, hamlet by hamlet, with the account of each locale followed by a list of the identifiable dead: in La Joya the number of dead was estimated initially at 138; 54 were murdered in La Ranchería, 63 in Los Toriles, 17 in Jocote Amarillo, and 113 in Cerro Pando. Another 15 people who sought refuge from the operation in a cave near Ortiz Hill were killed when patrolling soldiers lobbed a grenade into the cave mouth, their attention attracted by the sound o f a crying child (Tutela Legal 1991,27-62; 2008,54—67). However, the Atlacatl was not the only unit involved in the massacre opera­ tion. Regular forces—which composed the “anvil” to the Atlacatl “hammer”— also killed entire households, though with less thoroughness than the Atlacatl. Operating closer to the Torola River, troops from Chalatenango and elsewhere sometimes limited their activity to burning homes and allowed the inhabitants to leave the zone, warning them “not to return to the zone o f guerrilla activ­ ity” (Asociación Pro-Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos 2011,159). In some cases they killed adults and kidnapped infants and children— around a dozen altogether— who were taken first to Meanguera, then dispersed around the country, in some cases being adopted by the soldiers themselves (see the cases o f Beto, Ana Julia, and Carmelina in Asociación Pro-Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos 2011,101-76).16 In the midst o f the operation, the colonels in charge held an early morning meeting. Col. Jaime Ernesto Llores Grijalba, who led the Third Brigade in San Miguel; the colonel in charge of the Lourth Military Detachment in San Prancisco Gotera; and Lt. Col. Domingo Monterrosa Barrios, the Atlacatl Battalion commander, met with the Atlacatl’s executive officer, Maj. Jesús de



Natividad Cáceres Cabrera, and with the captains who commanded its five companies. They killed and butchered a steer to eat, and Monterrosa “expressed his satisfaction regarding the results o f the operation: ‘Mission completed,’ he told the commanders. Some soldiers carried a green cloth with white letters that said, ‘I f the guerrilla returns to Morazán, the Atlacatl will return to Morazán’” (Tutela Legal 1991,62).

THE DISCOVERY Although many people in the area o f E l Mozote heeded the advice o f Marcos Diaz, others were skeptical and fled before the approaching soldiers, either alone or with the assistance o f guides provided by the L M L N (see chap. 6). Prom refuges in heavily wooded ravines, caves, or on the other side o f the Sapo River, outside the noose laid by the military, these survivors could observe the movement o f the Atlacatl troops and the coming and going o f helicopters that ferried the commanding officers to and from the killing fields. They knew that something bad had occurred when they saw smoke rising from the burning homes, since during earlier periods of the civil war the army had set fire only to uninhabited houses. When smoke rose upward from numerous points in and around E l Mozote and the vultures appeared, circling in the sky and then descending in corkscrew spirals to feast on the human and animal remains, the reality of what had occurred began to sink in. After the Atlacatl exited northern Morazán on 17 December, the guerrillas filtered back in. The Salvadoran military had left a company of regular-army troops to guard La Guacamaya, and on 29 December the E R P mounted a “tre­ mendous attack” and retook the area (Henriquez Consalvi 1992,106). The rebel troops were so enraged by the massacre that, according to one witness, they took no prisoners. But even before the area had been secured, E R P commanders were counting the bodies and sending in health teams (brigadistas) to bury the human dead and dispose of the animal corpses in order to guard against an epidemic. “Pranco” participated in one such group and discussed his experiences with me. Entering from the direction of Cerro Cruz, his team encountered the bodies of four young women about fifteen years old who had been shot and stabbed to death on top o f the hill. They walked down the slope to the church, where they found many corpses in advanced states of decomposition; these they buried in mass graves o f twenty to twenty-five bodies each. The strong, sickening smell of



decaying flesh— now more than two weeks in the tropical sun—was practically intolerable, and after digging mass graves all day, the brigade members had to camp outside the area to sleep. The guerrillas “more or less cleaned up” the central Plain area, but they missed numerous bodies scattered throughout the surrounding countryside. Passing east through La Ranchería, they came upon a macabre sight: “There was a tall man about two meters in height. He was with other people, seated as though he were alive, and a pig was biting his left foot. And the pig couldn’t move it [the body] because it was obstructed by a stone next to the abdo­ men. . . . [The body was] seated leaning against a stone fence.. . . Then the com­ pañeros said, ‘This pig cannot be eaten because it has consumed human flesh.’” After burying as many o f the dead as they could, the members of the brigade returned to camp and burned their clothing to rid themselves of the odor of death. Even so, Franco stated, the smell of decay clung to their skin for days afterward. “Santiago” (Carlos Henriquez Consalvi), the Venezuelan who had become “the voice of Venceremos,” reentered northern Morazán on 24 December, ordered back by his F M L N superiors from Jucuarán, the town on the Pacific coast to which the radio team had been sent two weeks earlier to wait out the invasion (Henriquez Consalvi 1992, 97-106). That same day he broadcast the first news of the massacre to the world. On 30 December, a day after the zone was secured militarily, Santiago entered E l Mozote with a mobile team to interview survivors and describe the scene firsthand. I quote from his memoir: To the degree that we approach E l Mozote, hallucinatory signs envelop the senses, a mortal silence where before there were murmurs o f children playing and old people weaving rope. Servando, the combatant who accompanied me, covers his nose: “The turkey vultures are eating the dead,” he tells me. The plaza is deserted, on all sides there is a disorder o f broken plates, scapularies, straw hats, papers, and pieces o f bloody clothing. I remove the camera from the backpack and photograph a solitary infant tricycle in the middle o f the street that symbolized all the intensity o f the tragedy. We enter the church. M icro­ phone in hand I describe the scene: desolation, destroyed benches, virgins [shot] full o f holes, a headless saint, the walls riddled by the machine guns. Scattered over the floor: shoes, ID cards, dolls, prayer pamphlets, a daguerreotype, orna­ mental combs, bibs, bras, and torn shoes.

FIG URE 4 One o f E l Mozote’s main streets in late December several weeks after the massacre. (Photo courtesy o f the Museum o f the Word and Image.)

FIGURE 5 Destroyed home in E l Mozote, taken in late December: a jumble o f bones,

roof tiles, and other artifacts. A n armed E R P rebel and another person observe the wreckage. The Atlacatl burned every structure it encountered. Whereas adobe and the small number o f cement houses endured the heat, the heavy baked-tile roofs collapsed when wooden support structures burned through. (Photo courtesy o f the Museum o f the Word and Image.)



FIGURE 6 Sign left by the Atlacatl on the wall o f an E l Mozote house: “We the little angels from hell will return. We want to finish you off.” Numerous grammatical and orthographic errors evidence the low educational levels o f the troops. (Photo courtesy o f the Museum o f the Word and Image.)

In the confessional booth a skull outlined with chalk, together with an inscription: Batallón Atlacatl, Los angelitos del infierno. [Atlacatl Battalion,The litde angels from hell.] (Henriquez Consalvi 1992,107)

Santiago left the church and approached the small sacristy next to it: “The sacristy had been destroyed. Cadavers are entombed beneath its ruins. I shudder when I discover among the rubble a raised arm whose hand is extended toward the sky, as if in agony he had cried out for help without finding it” (Henriquez Consalvo 1992,107). He then took testimony from survivors: In a house with a collapsed roof a peasant studies the rubble that entombs little infant bodies. “I am searching for my four children. I ’ve been looking for them for two days. By God, look what they have done! This is an ingratitude. . . . W hat were these people guilty of?”



W ith his cry the man tries to revive his dead. We continue from house to house. In every one there are scenes filled with sadism. (Henriquez Consalvi 1992, 107-8)

The mobile crew took direct testimony from Doroteo, Anastacio Chicas, sixtyone-year-old Sebastián, and the witness Rufina Amaya. Sebastián pointed out the body o f Israel Márquez, the town patriarch, who was “well liked, a real worker.” They saw hundreds o f spent 5.56 mm cartridges used in Mi6s littered about. In the caseríos o f Rancherías, Los Toriles, La Joya, Poza Honda, E l Rincón, E l Potrero, Yancolo, Flor de Muerto, Cerro Pando, the scene is repeated everywhere: in the patios o f the houses mountains o f massacred peasants, the infants embrac­ ing their mothers. The skin appears like parchment. The turkey vultures are hav­ ing a banquet, the sun raises the unbearable smell o f death. On a plank, written in charcoal there is an inscription: The Adacatl was here. The father o f the subversives. 2nd Company. Here the sons o f whores fucked up and if you are missing your balls ask for them by mail from the Atlacatl Battalion. We the little angels from hell will return. We want to finish you off. (Henriquez Consalvi 1992,109, see fig. 6)


E HAVE NO R EC O R D of the deliberations that entered into the


design o f Operation Rescue, but it is inconceivable that they took place without the mention of “communism”— equated in 1970s

and 1980s E l Salvador with “terrorism”— and the role that Operation Rescue

would play in a grand design to defeat what the oligarchy and the military defined as “the communist threat.” W hat the “communists” threatened in El Salvador was to undo the economic power of the oligarchy and the monopoly on formal state power of the Salvadoran military men who had ruled in the oligarchy’s service since 1932. Playing different but complementary roles, the military and the oligarchy collaborated to sustain a capitalist economy with semifeudal characteristics and an authoritarian state apparatus— denomi­ nated “reactionary despotism” by Baloyra (1982, 72)— that secured by violence and paternalism the minimal political conditions necessary for the system’s maintenance and reproduction. In a more elaborate analysis, Stanley (1996, 56-58) defined E l Salvador as a “protection racket state” in which the military habitually exaggerated threats to state security in order to secure oligarchical and bourgeois consent to its governance. 'The fact that the military played a “service” role (but see below) for the oligar­ chy suggests that we should begin by examining the oligarchy and its ideology and then attempt to delineate some of the mechanisms through which that ide­ ology was imparted across sectors.1 There is no better vehicle for this task than the



Nationalist Republican Alliance, or A R E N A Party, founded on 30 September 1981 by ex-National Guard major Roberto D ’Aubuisson to contest the March 1982 Constituent Assembly elections against the Christian Democratic Party, the National Conciliation Party, and other political parties. The postwar A R E N A dresses in the clothing of moderation and reform (see N ACLA 1986), but at its founding in 1981 it crystallized the ideology of the most conservative sector of the oligarchy, and through the efforts of D ’Aubuisson, it gained a large follow­ ing within the officers’ corps (Schwarz 1991). His charisma aside, D ’Aubuisson’s views clearly appealed to sentiments that were widely shared but that were given coherence only when the oligarchy found it necessary to enter active political competition following Christian Democratic Party participation in the militarycivilian junta formed in October 1979 (Gaspar Tapia 1989,3). A R E N A ’S ideology, according to Ignasio Martín-Baró (1991a), has its basis in a belief in the sanctity o f individual effort and by extension the protection of the individual’s right to acquire, retain, and use property. As a result, pri­ vate enterprise becomes “an essential part of the individual,” and “the liberty demanded for private enterprise is a logical extension of the liberty demanded for the individual.” A 1988 handbook for A R E N A activists states clearly, “The individual is recognized as the fundamental base o f the nation, and the family as the fundamental nucleus of society” (A R E N A 1988, 2). A R E N A ’S ideology was anchored by three basic values related to this belief in individual effort— nationalism, anticommunism, and capitalism—related by Martín-Baró (1991a, 296-97) in the following manner: Any measure that threatens the right to private property or the freedom o f pri­ vate enterprise is an assault on the basic principles o f the capitalist economic system, which is the foundation o f national unity and is therefore a threat to national security. Thus in practice the nationalism A R E N A upholds is a nation­ alism defined by its anticommunism and by its profession o f capitalist faith and that which utilizes the principles and mechanisms o f national security in order to preserve the system o f production for profit and individual development that has prevailed in E l Salvador for decades.

A R E N A never articulated a clear concept o f “communism” comparable to its articulation o f the concepts o f “private property” or “capitalism.” It defined communism neither as a political philosophy nor as an economic doctrine. Nor was it, as used by A R E N A , the opposite of capitalism and private property,



since well-known defenders o f both have been tarred by A R E N A with the communist brush. But, then, how could communism be defined when at the time it took in so much: all that could not be encompassed within the narrow frame that underwrote the oligarchy’s right to endless accumulation? MartinBaró (1991a, 296; see also Ching 2014,351-52) wrote toward the end o f the war that A R E N A ’S militant anticommunism is an anti-value since it is interested primarily in what is to be rejected, and only negatively in what is to be sought for the future. W hat A R E N A means by com­ munism is never defined except on a very generic level. . . . Communism is any system, movement, or ideology that is not fully identified with the prevailing sys­ tem in E l Salvador or that calls for some kind o f social change. Communism is thus the denial o f the nationalism that A R E N A upholds. Therefore, in the discourse o f the Salvadoran far right, Fidel Castro and Jim m y Carter, the Com ­ munist Party and the Jesuits, the F M L N and the United States Senate can all be equally communist.

“Can all be equally communist.” Can is a modal verb of affirmation, and its use in this context conveys possibility rather than certainty, meaning that it is equally possible that at least in some cases they—whoever “they” are— might also not be communist. This makes o f “communism” a moving target, a signifier with a shifting field of referents defined less in the realm o f ideas than in the realm o f action. Regardless o f what a person may declare, she could be branded a communist when and if undertaking (or espousing) an action that was adjudged to be threatening to the system of oligarchical domina­ tion. For ARENA, communism was not about “those others” at all but about “themselves” and anything that threatened them. A logic of the concrete that turned around the current interests o f a few hundred families o f the super rich, it masqueraded as a logic o f the abstract. It served as a dumping ground for the “refuse” o f uncomfortable propositions, whatever their source, and in the early 1980s it empowered the activities that memorialized el Playón (the Big Beach) and la Puerta del Diablo (the Devil’s Doorway) as macabre dumps that death squads filled up with the tortured bodies o f those people regarded as dangers to the status quo. Ching quotes a 2008 memoir by Valdivieso Oriani to the effect that late i97os/early 1980s Washington, D C , “was the beachhead o f the Soviet Union’s Marxist-Leninist imperialism throughout the entire Western



Hemisphere” (2014, 352). Other right-wing memoirs of the civil war period made different if similarly implausible claims. Tina Rosenberg, a journalist who attempted to grasp violence in Latin America by studying “those who make cruelty possible” (1991, 9), explained the attitudes o f E l Salvador’s rich this way: I began to understand E l Salvador’s violence only after listening to repeated admonishments from the wealthy to tell the truth. They meant not the truth as I saw it but the truth as they saw it, the basis o f which is the belief that the mem­ bers o f the private sector, the productive people who create wealth for El Salva­ dor, are under attack from the twin evils o f terrorism and socialist policies. This is the central Truth. . . . But the details o f the Truth do not matter. W hat matters is that the oligarchy believes in it passionately. Finding the Truth is a question not o f metaphysics but o f real estate. It was born behind concrete walls, barbed wire, and bulletproof glass that delineate the world o f the upper class like the Unes in a coloring book. The Truth is a version o f reality distilled and sharpened each day as the rich talk only to one another, as government ministers whisper the names o f the rich sofdy and lovingly, as the army acts as their personal guards and the newspapers as their personal press agents. H23)2

The Salvadoran rich have been speaking only to one another for a long time. Many wealthy families trace their arrival in E l Salvador to the colonial period (1525-1821), when owners of plantations grew and processed indigo, exporting the concentrate to mills in Manchester, England, as hard blocks o f dark blue, colorfast dye. In the second half o f the nineteenth century, indigo gradually gave way to coffee cultivation, and the accompanying expansion o f what had up to that point been a stillborn economy attracted a modest number o f immi­ grants from Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East (Arias 1988, 78-80). There were,” as Lindo-Fuentes (1990, 181) notes, “no large national groups moving en masse to El Salvador; immigrants were individuals (often male and single) with a specific expertise.” Beginning in commerce and industry, they moved into land ownership and eventually intermarried into the mestizo elite. Within a few generations only the surnames remained to suggest their origins: Hill and Wright (England); Alvarez (Colombia); de Sola (Curafao); Llach (Germany); Hasbún and Zablah (Palestine).3



For a time El Salvador must have been a heady place for people with mar­ ketable skills and capital. Erected on economically “weak foundations” (the term is that of Lindo-Fuentes [1990]), the coffee economy stimulated saving and investment, a centralized bureaucracy, and the construction o f a transport system. Most important, the prospect of producing this grano de oro (golden grain) led the elite to use state power to privatize communal and ejidal lands in what Rosenberg (1991, 240) referred to as “a land reform in reverse” (cf. Brow­ ning 1971; Arias 1988). Once most (though not all; see Lauria-Santiago 1999) o f the potential coffee land located on the upper slopes o f the volcanic chain in the central cordillera had been occupied, the golden age o f upward mobil­ ity into the elite pretty much came to an end: “The right time to start a big fortune, it seems, were the last twenty years of the nineteenth century and the first twenty years o f the twentieth.. . . After that the door was virtually closed” (Lindo-Fuentes 1990,184). By 1928 coffee made up 92 percent o f E l Salvador’s exports (Browning 1971). The consolidation o f the coffee economy fixed the contours o f the modern oligarchy, which accommodated few newcomers in the ensuing sixty years. In 1977 Eduardo Colindres pointed out in his book on the economic foundations o f the Salvadoran bourgeoisie that only four of the sixty-three richest families in the country had made their fortunes after the 1950s (Colindres 1977). Thus, the local beneficiaries o f the postwar cotton boom of the 1960s, the expansion o f insurance and banking services, or the industrial growth connected to the import substitution policies and the Central American Common Market were, principally, the same interconnected families that formed the coffee oligarchy. (O f course, the principal beneficiaries were the foreign— mainly U.S.— banks, merchants, and companies that financed, supplied, and purchased the products of postwar economic expansion; see Williams 1986.) As Baloyra notes, “ ‘Diver­ sification’ in E l Salvador did not increase the social heterogeneity o f the domi­ nant group. The older families, represented in the first group (planters), simply moved outside the coffee sector into other areas o f the agricultural sector and into other areas of production” (1982, 23). I f the “planters” did not move into retail trade, neither did the “merchants” move into agriculture. In the early 1990s Paige (1993) distinguished a more “progressive” agro­ industrial faction o f the coffee elite (who favored a negotiated solution to the civil war and limited democracy) from a politically retrograde agro-financial fac­ tion.4 However, the ideological differences between the two groups were over­ shadowed by their ideological similarities: members o f both groups believed



that private control over coffee production, processing, and marketing was the only plausible route to economic development; both opposed structural changes that would lead to the redistribution o f wealth and political power; and both attributed the civil war to “a tiny group of terrorists o f foreign inspiration if not foreign origin” (Paige 1993, 25). The author concluded, “Despite the current acceptance o f democracy and negotiations, elite ideology has changed remark­ ably little since the liberal revolutions that ushered in the coffee era a century and a half ago” (Paige 1993,38).s Observers frequently attribute the 1980s elite’s narcissistic view of the world to the relatively closed circle of wealth and influence in which it resided. For instance, Lindo-Fuentes (1990,190) wondered whether “the absolute power of the planters has something to do with their political inflexibility and narrow­ mindedness”; since “they were beyond credible challenges, they did not have to learn the art of compromise, [and] they could insulate themselves from the rest of the population.” Rosenberg’s observation o f conversations taking place behind “concrete walls” and “bulletproof glass” and endorsed by a coterie of yes-men (journalists, politicians, military officers) had the same import. The fact is that we knew and know little about what takes place behind high walls, in the foreign luxury automobiles, and in the beach houses where the oligarchs and other elites reside, “work,” and congregate to relax. W hat does social isolation— an isolation maybe only a few degrees more severe than that of many American suburbs— contribute to social myopia and personal meg­ alomania?6 Flow does social positioning react on social ideology? Should we assume with Louis Althusser (1971) and to a lesser degree Paul Willis (1979) that language learning, ideology, and desire are inseparable components o f a single process o f class-based socialization? I f so, then there would be little sur­ prise that except for the occasional renegade, “almost every Salvadoran seems to get through school in the United States without acquiring any beliefs that contradict those of his parents” (Rosenberg 1991,238). But this is in the theater of ideological transmission, which is less critical for thinking about E l Mozote than representation. It is enough for the moment to point out that in the late 1970s and early ’80s, a relatively small and interrelated group o f wealthy capitalists lived as though under a state of siege; they believed that the barbarians were at the gates and any measures were legitimate to save civilization. W ith notable exceptions (such as the martyred landowner Enrique Alvarez) the oligarchy was an ideological black hole. So convinced was it of a few densely packed maxims that light could not escape its strong gravitational



field.7Yet is it inconceivable that in the midst of this self-indulgence, a large eye looked out on the world—a world that the oligarchy barely acknowledged and refused to accommodate—and blinked?




The Salvadoran oligarchy had reason to blink, because it must have known, or suspected, that it was both envied and hated. It had already weathered the feared storm once. In the crux of world depression and a massive decline in coffee prices in 1930, indigenous peasants rebelled and seized several towns in the coffee-producing departments of Sonsonate and Ahuachapán. In the 1880s many peasants had been thrust into wage labor after being dispos­ sessed of their communal lands by decree, and in 1930 they were threatened with starvation when the coffee planters responded to a depression-induced collapse of the world coffee market by reducing workers’ wages. For more than fifty years the rebellion was understood through the lens of “communist causality,” in which urban-based activists such as Augustin Farabundo Marti linked to the recently formed Salvadoran Communist Party (Partido Comu­ nista de El Salvador [PCS]) organized largely indigenous peasants in coffeeproducing departments of western El Salvador (Lindo-Fuentes, Ching, and Lara-Martinez 2007; Ching 2014). In the wake of new oral and archival evi­ dence and critical readings of earlier sources, communist causality has given way to more nuanced positions, all of which accord Nahua peasants a key role (Lindo-Fuentes, Ching, and Lara-Martinez 2007; Gould and Lauria-Santiago 2008; Ching 2014, 289-304; Tilley 2005,137-54). Though plans of the rebellion reached the army and Marti was arrested, the uprising proceeded. Gangs of angry, machete-wielding indigenous peasants seized Izalco, Nonualco, and other towns and killed some twenty or thirty wealthy planters, government officials, and security-force personnel before the army arrived from the capi­ tal and elsewhere to arrest the insurrection. The restoration of peace—for the bourgeoisie, though not for workers and peasants—was followed by the sys­ tematic slaughter of between ten thousand and thirty thousand people ordered by Gen. Maximiliano Hernández Martinez, who had seized power from civil­ ian president Arturo Araujo a few months earlier. Most of the death toll was racked up by civil guards under the authority of plantation owners (Gould and Lauria-Santiago 2008).



Apparently government authorities tricked the residents o f Izalco, Juayúa, and other towns by inviting people who had not taken part in the insurrection to present themselves in order to acquire safe-conduct passes. The authorities examined those who arrived, and they took out and shot those who matched the broad criteria used to identify insurgents. Had the people living in and around El Mozote known more about the deceptions employed in the 1932 massacre, which took place far to the west of Morazán, they might have reacted differently when Marcos Diaz allegedly informed area peasants that those who congregated in the community’s center would have their lives respected by the invading military force.

However, the government maintained silence about the 1932 events and destroyed files, books, and newspapers dealing with the revolt (Anderson 1971, 144), which has recently been excavated through careful archival and ethnohistorical work by Gould and Lauria-Santiago (2008) and Ching (20x4), among others. The silence contributed to a plethora of rumors that have become accepted as fact by many people. One common belief is that the peasants killed hundreds of members of the bourgeoisie; Anderson arrived at a maximum of one hundred after a meticulous accounting, which “means that the government [and civil guards] exacted reprisals at the rate of about one hundred to one” (1971, 136). Following the Matanza, the oligarchs and their allies took strin­ gent measures to prevent future independent organization of rural peasants and wage workers. Farabundo Marti was executed on 1 February 1932, along with two of his confederates, but the oligarchs’ fear of communists and campesinos did not die with him. Although rural organization was stifled by oppressive labor laws and rural security forces (Treasury Police, National Guard), it is clear that among Lázaro Cárdenas, Fidel Castro, Jacobo Arbenz, Rafael Trujillo, and others, there were enough real and imagined communist threats nearby to keep the Salvadoran bourgeoisie on alert. When that threat did finally materialize again m 1980, it is not surprising that the revolutionaries named their organization after Augustin Farabundo Marti (the FM LN ) or that the extreme right orga­ nized a death squad named after Gen. Martinez (the Maximiliano Hernández Martínez Brigade).

It seems probable that elite ideology had been firmly established by the first quarter of the twentieth century and that the “weak foundations” of the Salva­ doran economy set the stage for the elite’s inflated sense of its self-importance. Members of bourgeoisies everywhere believe that they and not workers are the



real producers, as though risking capital— a congealed form of other people’s labor— is morally superior to risking one’s Ufe eking out a meager living as a peasant or wage worker. But during this period the Salvadoran bourgeoisie took an extreme position, speaking as though they were the only producers. They worked; others merely pretended to. What Lindo-Fuentes and Ching refer to as “the elite landowning class” represented themselves “as civiliz­ ers who had brought economic rationality to the darkness of the Salvadoran countryside” and “claimed that they had created this wealth through their hard work and entrepreneurial spirit and thus they had a right to retain it” (2012, 7). This came very close to a frontier mentality in which economic gain is the reward for those who successfully carry out a risky conquest o f nature. Yet in E l Salvador the “conquest” o f coffee lands on the slopes of the central cordil­ lera involved the dispossession and displacement of thousands o f indigenous and mestizo peasants impelled into the ranks of the minifundistas (small land­ holders), sharecroppers, colonos (plantation residents who worked in exchange for a small parcel o f land), and wage laborers. (The process was repeated fol­ lowing World War II, when insecticides opened up the south coast to cotton production [Williams 1986,13-73; 155-58; McClintock 1985,152-53; Arias 1988; Browning 1971].) As large-scale growers replaced peasants with coffee trees and opportunities to get in on the bonanza declined, the winners in the land rush became less willing to share the wealth and more willing to label those who would insist on it in pejorative terms, among which communist came to occupy the front ranks. Even when capital diversified, the domination of agrarian over industrial capital and the interpenetration of the two prevented industrialists, and even certain military figures, from promoting the land reforms needed to broaden the internal market for their goods (Williams 1986,17308). In what manner, we must now ask, did these views succeed in insinuating themselves into the army and the security forces, which were led not by mem­ bers o f the upper classes but by the sons of small-scale merchants and petty tradespeople? To begin, it is relevant to note that the army, National Guard, National Police, and Treasury Police were created at different times and under somewhat different conditions at the behest o f the Salvadoran oligarchy in order to maintain internal security. Security is synonymous, safety, shelter, certainty. To say that security was to be maintained rather than cre­ ated presumed that it already existed and that the mandate of these “security” forces was to preserve in a “secure” state a system that showed signs o f deviating



from it, or, alternatively, to remove those signs o f deviation before they affected the system. In this usage, security was a gloss for “order,” and maintaining it meant preserving private property and elite economic and political domination against efforts of the poor to defend their lands or to secure better wages and working conditions. Hence security forces (composed of the National Guard, Treasury Police, and National Police) was a disingenuous choice o f terminol­ ogy that internalized a class bias: the (hyper).f